At the outbreak of war our Intelligence Service had reliable information that Hitler was faced with the opposition of many men holding the highest appointments in his armed forces and civil service. The German General Staff had welcomed and gladly accepted rearmament at his hands, but did not believe that Germany was strong enough to wage a successful war. They rightly feared that Hitler was steering the country towards disaster. According to our information this opposition movement had assumed such proportions that it might even have led to revolt and the downfall of the Nazis. That this supposition was justified has been amply shown by what we have learned since the end of hostilities about the many plots forged against Hitler and how narrow was the margin which saved him time and again.
Once we were at war it was obviously of paramount importance to investigate these matters, and to find out whether there was any hope that internal dissensions might create conditions favourable to a quick end to the war. Although many vague rumours had reached me in Holland, so far, I had failed to get hold of anything definite and - something had to be done about it.
For reasons of secrecy and security I had hitherto kept very much in the background, maintaining a number of links between myself and my agents in Germany, and restricting my own direct contacts to a few chief assistants. No one was supposed to know the identities of any others than the person from whom he received his instructions and those working directly under him. I now decided to break with this practice and attempt myself to establish direct relations with the opposition leaders in Germany.
Through a German refugee in Holland named Dr. Franz, we had for some time past received reliable and often valuable information from a major in the Luftwaffe, named Solms. This man had frequently indicated, that if he could be absolutely certain that Dr. Franz had made contact with the British Intelligence Service, he had some most important news to give. He was particularly insistent that a meeting between him and a responsible British officer should be arranged, and he refused to give any further details to Dr. Franz. When I came to know the latter, I could very well understand this reluctance for, although Dr. Franz was a likable little man, he was most excitable and very far from a model of discretion.
I met Dr. Franz one day at the beginning of September 1939, and after a long talk I expressed to him my readiness to meet his friend if it were possible for him to come to Holland for this purpose. At first it was intended that our meeting should take place at The Hague or Amsterdam. This proved to be impossible as he could only make a flying visit of a few hours. He could, however, come to Venlo, as Germans living near the frontier were still allowed to cross the border to shop in neighbouring towns in Holland. We therefore arranged to meet at a small hotel there.
Major Solms was a big, bluff, self-confident fellow, a Bavarian, and inclined to talk as big as he looked. I very soon discovered that he was not nearly as knowledgeable as he pretended, and came to the conclusion that he was little more than an errand boy for more important people in the background. Indeed, he eventually admitted that he could not say much until he had reported to his chief about our meeting. It was then arranged that we should meet again in a week's time.
At our second meeting he impressed me much more favourably; he was calmer, less boastful, and seemed to be acting under definite instructions. Whereas at our first meeting he had ranted a good bit about his honour as a German officer, and had asked me whether I thought he would be a traitor to his country, on this occasion he was quite co-operative. He answered one or two questions on technical air force matters which I put to him and, in the end, told me that there was a big conspiracy to remove Hitler from power in which some of the highest ranking army officers were involved. He could give me no details, as the ringleaders would only deal with me direct. We therefore made some arrangements to facilitate future communication and agreed upon a code message by which his friends could identify themselves. Sure enough, some days later, Dr. Franz received a telephone call from Berlin and a German officer, whom he knew well, gave him the code message.
A day or two later a letter from the same man reached us through the channel which I had fixed up with Major Solms. In this I
was told that a certain German general would like to meet me, but to make absolutely sure that I was indeed a British
agent I was asked to arrange that a certain news item, the text of which was enclosed, should be broadcast in
the German News Bulletin of the B.B.C.
This was easily arranged, and the paragraph was broadcast twice on the 11th October. About the same time too, I received a last message from Major Solms in which he told me that he was afraid that he was being watched by the Gestapo and would therefore have to lie low for a time.
These latest developments seemed to indicate that I might be on to quite a big thing and, as I feared that the job might prove to be more than I could manage alone, I asked Major R. H. Stevens, a British official at The Hague, whether he would be willing to lend me a hand. He agreed to this without demur and from that time on we worked together as partners.
Although it sounds quite simple to speak of arranging to meet some Germans in neutral Holland, actually many difficulties had first to be overcome. By this time the Dutch Army had been mobilized and the entire frontier zone organized to repel invasion. To reach the German border numerous road blocks and military posts had to be passed, and at each travellers had to establish their identity. Under such conditions any secret meeting with our friends seemed to be out of the question.
After some discussion, Stevens and I decided that our only hope lay in placing our difficulties before the Chief of the Dutch Military Intelligence, Major General van Oorschot, in the hope that he might be willing and able to help. General van Oorschot was one of a comparatively small number of men in Holland who from the very first recognized the probability that his country would be invaded and overrun by Germany. He was, too, a man who never feared to shoulder responsibility nor hesitated to take prompt action where such was necessary. We put our case before him in broad lines and he immediately consented to help us by sending one of his officers with us with authority to pass us through the Dutch military cordon and to assist the Germans to enter Holland. The only stipulations which he made were that this officer should be present at our interviews with the Germans, and that we would ourselves refrain from putting forward any proposals which might endanger Dutch neutrality. Considerable criticism has been levelled in Holland against General van Oorschot, especially since the Nazis attempted later to justify their invasion by citing his action as a breach of Dutch neutrality. His action may have been ultra vires, and indeed, it was immediately disowned by his Government, but had our enterprise proved successful, there is but little doubt that he would have deserved and received the gratitude of everyone engaged in the fight against Hitler. It was a time of crisis which called for action even at the danger of doing the right thing in the wrong way.
On the 19th October we heard that the Germans would be at a small village on the frontier called Dinxperlo at ten o'clock next morning. This was some 120 miles from The Hague and so we had to set off bright and early. Our party consisted of Major Stevens, Dr. Franz, and the Dutch officer who had been detailed by General van Oorschot to look after us. This officer, Lieutenant Klop, was an exceedingly nice, upstanding young fellow whom we soon came to look upon as a good friend. As he spoke English perfectly, we decided to pass him off as a British officer and Stevens gave him the name of Captain Coppens.
I drove, and we made quite good time. We reached Zutphen, a small town in Gelderland, at eight o'clock and Stevens and I decided to wait at a cafe there whilst Klop and Franz went by taxi to fetch our visitors from the frontier some twenty miles away.
We had breakfast and then Stevens and I hung about the cafe for hour after hour with no word nor sign from the rest of our party. We held the fort with numerous cups of coffee until, about noon, Klop rang up to say that he too had been waiting all the time at the frontier without a sign of the Germans. Two men had, however, now turned up and he was bringing them back right away.
When he reached us he had with him, instead of the general we had expected and of whom we had a good description, two men in the early thirties whom Dr. Franz introduced as Captain von Seidlitz and Lieutenant Grosch. He said that he knew them both well and that they would tell us themselves why the general had failed to come himself. The men seemed very nervous and at first were reluctant even to get out of the car. My intention had been to take them to Amsterdam where I had arranged for a quiet place for our talk, but they declared that this was impossible as they must be back again in Germany before eight that evening without fail. This put me in rather a quandary. Stevens and I had been hanging about that cafe for so long that we felt the waiters were beginning to eye us suspiciously. They had heard us talking English together and I felt sure that if we now came in with two Huns they would certainly report us to the police. Remember that this was near the German frontier and people were inclined to see spies everywhere.
I packed the whole party into my car and drove a little way into the country-side until we came to an isolated roadside cafe where I decided that we might stop for lunch. Dr. Franz, who had been quite normal on the drive down, had become terribly excited which we attributed to joy at meeting his friends. He was really quite a nuisance as he kept running round the table from one to another of us, making all sorts of absurd remarks and interrupting our attempts to interrogate our guests. A couple of Dutch soldiers came into the cafe and I noticed that they were eyeing us very attentively and apparently trying to listen in to our conversation. We were still in the frontier zone and I did not want any trouble with the military. As soon, therefore, as we had finished our lunch I telephoned to some friends in Arnhem, which was about ten miles farther on, and asked whether I might come to their house as I had some people with me with whom I wanted to talk undisturbed. 'Certainly,' was the answer and when we got there, the dining-room was placed at our disposal and we settled down for a round-table conference.
The Germans would not, or could not, tell us anything beyond admitting that they were connected with a revolutionary movement. They said that their chief had been afraid of being held up at the frontier, or that we might fail to keep the appointment. He had therefore sent them to see how the land lay. They made rather a joke of the fact that generals tend to leave sticky jobs to others, but said that when he heard from them how easily they had got through, he would certainly venture to pay us a visit next time himself.
We had scarcely started our talk when my friend came in, and in some agitation, told us that the house was surrounded by police and that there were two men at the door asking about some Germans. Klop and I went out and sure enough the street seemed full of side-car combinations and men of the Dutch gendarmerie. We learned that after we left the cafe the soldiers, who thought us very suspicious characters, had rung up headquarters and the police and then traced us through my trunk call to Arnhem. Klop had some difficulty in preventing the police from bursting into the house and arresting the lot of us, but after some argument they agreed to take him to their barracks where he quickly allayed the suspicions of the officer in command.
Whilst all this was going on the two Germans were in an absolute panic, and Stevens had the greatest difficulty in preventing them from jumping out of the window and trying to escape. Franz, too, became white as a sheet and seemed on the point of passing out. When Klop, by his return, brought some semblance of calm, we tried to get down to business again. The two Huns still seemed to be scared out of their wits and it was very difficult to get anything out of them except that they wanted to go home. They were certain that they would be late and this would ruin them. We did manage to get some further confirmation about the conspiracy and had a little general conversation on possible allied peace terms, but as it did not seem likely that we should get much further with these men, we asked Klop to take them back to the frontier. Dr. Franz was complaining that he felt very ill (he often suffered from gall-stones) so we packed him off to The Hague by train.
During the next few days we received several more communications from Germany. A fresh meeting was fixed for the 25th October and then postponed until the 30th. Again, a rendezvous was given at Dinxperlo, but this time only Klop went to fetch the men and Stevens and I awaited them at The Hague. We did not want another experience like the last, which might have compromised us seriously; so, if the Germans wished to see us, they would have to do what we thought best.
Again we had a long wait. When at last Klop got back, he told us that although he had been well on time, the Germans, instead of waiting quietly, had tried to make their own way into Holland through a wood. They had been spotted, arrested, and searched. Klop had taken advantage of their mishap to go through their belongings and inspect their papers. Everything seemed to be quite in order.
This time, instead of the officers we had expected, Klop had with him three men. One was the man Grosch who had come over on the first occasion, and he introduced the two others to us as Colonel Martini and Major Schaemmel. Of the three, Schaemmel was obviously the leader. It was difficult to assess his age, as although he had a babyish sort of face, most of it was obliterated by the numerous scars of those sabre cuts so dear to German students. But he was a well-informed man, had a quick decisive manner, and a ready answer to all our questions.
He started by giving us a clear and convincing resume of conditions in Germany and the degree in which the army had suffered in the Polish campaign. Losses in men and material had been high and the present military and economic conditions made it imperative that the war should be brought to an end quickly. Hitler though, would not listen to the advice of his General Staff and allowed nothing to stand in the way of his ambitions. Therefore, he must be got rid of. It was, though, of no use to assassinate him, as this could only lead to chaos. The intention therefore was to take him prisoner and force him to give orders authorizing a junta of officers to reorganize the Government and start negotiations for peace.
Schaemmel said, "We are Germans and have to think of the interests of our own country first. Before we take any steps against Hitler we want to know whether England and France are ready to grant us a peace which is both just and honourable."
A long discussion followed during which we hammered out a protocol which could be submitted by us to a higher level. We made it clear to the Germans that we had no authority to give them any assurances and that our task was solely that of intermediaries.
The Germans had to be back at the frontier before noon next day as a friendly customs officer who would pass them through went off duty at that hour. It was clearly impossible for us to expect any answer from London before then and the Germans were therefore given a wireless transmitting and receiving set so that future communications would be facilitated. Although Klop was present at our talk, he did not, of course, take any part in the discussion. This was very useful, as he was free to observe the Germans and give undivided attention to their reactions. When we compared notes after the meeting, he agreed that the Germans seemed to be genuine and thought that the whole thing looked most hopeful.
A full report was made to London, and a day or two later we received a carefully worded and rather non-committal reply.
We were authorized to impart the gist of this message to the Germans but were instructed to give
them nothing in writing. The matter seemed very interesting and we were to follow it up with energy, though
at the same time we were urged to be cautious and to avoid risk to ourselves.
After a preliminary technical hitch, wireless communication with the Germans worked smoothly and messages were
exchanged daily at a certain hour. Since we were not permitted to give the Germans anything in writing, it was
obvious that another meeting would be necessary so that we could tell them about the reply which we had received.
For this next encounter, Klop suggested that Venlo would be a better place, as it was close to the frontier
and less than five miles away there was a very quiet customs post which was far easier to pass unobserved than that at Dinxperlo. We therefore made arrangements to meet the Germans there on the morning of 7th November.
Again it was the intention of Stevens and myself to put up at an hotel in Venlo whilst Klop went to the frontier and fetched the Germans. When he got there though, he rang up to say that they seemed very frightened and would not agree to come to Venlo with him. For his part, he strongly advised us to come along to the frontier as there was a cafe, from which he was telephoning, which was much quieter and better for our purpose than the hotel at Venlo. He absolutely pooh-poohed any idea of danger and said that the cafe was well inside Dutch territory and nothing could possibly happen to us there. Neither Stevens nor I liked to venture so close to Germany, but we had to admit that the Germans might be running a greater risk if they came to Venlo, so, on the whole, we had better take Klop's advice. After all he knew the ground better than we. So off we went.
It was a pretty drive from Venlo to the frontier, a winding road through pine woods. When we got to the cafe, certainly nothing could have looked more peaceful. A red brick building with a roofed veranda at the front and sides. At the back a large garden with swings, see-saws and other amusements for children. It lay on the left-hand side of the road and about 200 yards farther on, we could see the black and white painted barrier of the German frontier. Nearly opposite the cafe was the Dutch customs house.
Klop met us at the door, and inside, in a quiet room next to the cafe, we found Schaemmel and Grosch. We gave them a resume of the answer we had received to their questions, which did not seem to come quite up to their expectations. They said though, that they would pass it on to their chief, and then asked whether it would be possible for us to come again next day to meet him. He had been unable to come this time, but he was anxious to see us as he wished to entrust some secret papers to us for safekeeping. The plot might fail. Plots often did, and he did not want all record of his work and that of his friends to be lost; besides, there were certain points which he could only discuss with us personally.
'So,' we thought, 'the general is getting windy and wants us to arrange a get-away for him.' But, as the request seemed reasonable, we agreed, and a meeting was fixed for the following afternoon.
Next day we drove straight through to the cafe, though this time Klop made a short stop at Venlo and went to police headquarters where he arranged that an armed guard should be sent to the frontier. It was not that we distrusted Schaemmel, but there was always the possibility that the Gestapo might have got on to him and make a raid so as to catch him with us red-handed. It would not be difficult to do this in such an isolated spot, so it was better to be on the safe side.
When we got to the cafe, to our disappointment we found only Schaemmel there. He was very sorry, but the general had been held up at the last minute. That morning an appeal for peace had been launched by the Queen of the Netherlands and the King of the Belgians. Hitler had called a big staff meeting at Munich to consider this, and the general had been obliged to attend. Could we come next day again? The attempt against Hitler was to take place on Saturday; today was Wednesday, so tomorrow would be the last chance of a meeting. With some hesitation we agreed to try yet once more to meet this most elusive general. Neither Stevens nor I liked the idea of coming here again. The weather had turned dull and in the waning evening light we seemed a long way from home and far, far too close to Germany. We tried to fix our appointment for the morning, but Schaemmel said, the general, who was now in Munich, could not possibly be with us before the afternoon. We therefore arranged to meet at 4 p.m.
The 9th November, 1939. I got up shortly after five although I felt very tired and much disinclined to do so, but through these daily trips to the frontier I had been forced to neglect all my other work and there were some things which I could put off no longer. As I shaved I could not help wishing that I could somehow or other dodge having to go to that beastly frontier cafe again. There had been something about it the previous evening which had made me feel most uncomfortable; the unpleasant looking stout man who had looked us over so carefully as we went in, then the feeling of being completely cut off from the outside world in that little side room where we had our talks with the Germans, those big glass windows which looked out on to a wall of dense undergrowth. It would be so easy for some SS men to cross the border at the back of the cafe and creep up so that they could shoot us through the windows as we sat in the light. Rubbish! There was no real reason for my fears. During the First World War I had been to the frontier dozens of times like this; much closer too, for the cafe in Limburg where I used to meet people was half in Holland and half in Germany - but yet I was uneasy, and if I could have done so with decency, would have rung up Stevens and called the whole thing off.
My wife was not up, of course, but I spoke to her before I went out and said, that perhaps I might not be back to dinner; in any case, she was not to wait for me after 7.30. She said, "No, don't hurry back. You drive much too fast and it always makes me nervous. I have a bridge party here this afternoon and it will really be better if you have dinner out; I shall be much happier if I know you are driving carefully."
It was a dull morning and much colder than of late; the sky was overcast and threatened rain. When I got to the office I just had time to glance at the morning paper. It carried a stop-press notice about an attempt on Hitler's life which had been made at Munich the previous day. Hitler himself had escaped as he had already left the place before the explosion, but many others had been killed and injured. Very curious, and I wondered whether this attempt had anything to do with our people and, if not, what effect it would have on their plans.
Then I plunged into my work and it was after ten before I was free to join Stevens at his house. Klop had not yet arrived. Stevens felt just as I did, that the Huns were becoming an infernal nuisance with their shilly-shallying. If the general did not come up to the scratch this time, we would wash our hands of the whole business and leave them to run their show alone. We would keep this one last appointment, and then, finis.
Stevens produced some Browning automatics and we each loaded and pocketed one-just in case. Then Klop came in. He apologized for being late but there was a bit of a scare on and he had been kept at the office. Some news had come in to the effect that the Germans might march into Holland at any moment. The story was unconfirmed and Klop did not believe it himself; nor did it agree with any indications which Stevens and I had. We talked about this for a time and then discussed what could be done to satisfy the Germans about an escape route into Holland in case of emergency. Of course it was out of the question to give them anything in the nature of a pass, so it was decided simply to give the telephone number of Klop's office; then, if they wanted to come into Holland they could ask the customs officer to ring up this number and Klop would then see to the rest.
We were just on the point of setting off when a message from the Germans started to come in over the wireless. It might be to cancel our appointment, so we had to wait until it had been transcribed and decoded. It was though, of no importance whatever; merely a request for a change in the hours of transmission. This had delayed us quite a bit and I would have to drive all out if we were to be on time for the meeting. As we were all feeling rather tired I asked my driver, Jan Lemmens, to come with us so that he could bring the car back in case we wished ourselves to return by train.
We made such good time that we were able to stop for a quick lunch at a little road-side cafe near s'Hertogenbosch. While we were eating, Stevens and I talked about the possible danger that we might be raided and captured, but Klop assured us that there was nothing to be feared, especially not during daylight, as he had arranged for a stronger guard than usual to be at the frontier.
Until we stopped for lunch Jan had sat next to me, and Stevens and Klop behind. When we started off again, Stevens came and sat by me and we had a chat about what might happen if the Germans made a sudden attack on Holland and we discussed what measures would be best for the safe evacuation of the legation and other Britishers still in Holland; Stevens also scribbled down a list of people whom he knew, who would have to be got out of the country before the Germans got in. I said, "Better destroy that list of yours before we get to the frontier. I still have a feeling that something may go wrong." Stevens said, "Of course," and I believe tore up the paper and threw it out of the car.
I never like to talk when I am driving and always find that it slows up my speed appreciably; in any case, when we reached Venlo it was already four o'clock, the time set for our meeting. Although we stopped so that Klop could call at the police station and arrange about our guard, we could not wait until the men had cycled the five miles to the frontier, but pushed on ahead of them.
All the way down from The Hague we had noticed that military precautions had been intensified and we had been held up at every road block and tank barrier. Even now, between Venlo and our cafe, we were stopped twice. The first time the sentry said something about having orders to allow no cars to pass and although Klop showed him his authority insisted that he must first go to the guard room and speak to the N.C.O. in charge. Both Stevens and I, I believe, felt alike and hoped that he would come back with the news that we could go no farther; but in a few minutes he was with us: "Everything is all right. The N.C.O. had a message for me which had been phoned through from the office. Carry on."
The second sentry did not actually stop us, but only made signs that we should drive slowly. He was stationed at a bend in the road just before we entered the straight along which one had a view of the frontier. Somehow or other, it seemed to me that things looked different from what they had on the previous days. Then I noticed that the German barrier across the road which had always been closed, was now lifted; there seemed to be nothing between us and the enemy. My feeling of impending danger was very strong. Yet the scene was peaceful enough. No one was in sight except a German customs officer in uniform lounging along the road towards us and a little girl who was playing at ball with a big black dog in the middle of the road before the cafe.
Café Backus mit heruntergelassenen Markisen an der Veranda im Erdgeschoss. Quelle: Sigismund Payne Best, The Venlo Incident, London 1950
I must have rather checked my speed, for Klop called out, "Go ahead, everything is quite all right." I felt rather
a fool to be so nervous. I let the car drift slowly along to the front of the cafe on my left and then reversed into the car
park on the side of the building farthest from the frontier. Schaemmel was standing on the veranda at the corner and made
a sign which I took to mean that our bird was inside. I stopped the engine and Stevens got out on the right. My car
had left-hand drive.
I had just wriggled clear of the wheel and was following him out when there was a sudden noise of shouting and shooting. I looked up, and through the windscreen saw a large open car drive up round the corner till our bumpers were touching. It seemed to be packed to overflowing with rough-looking men. Two were perched on top of the hood and were firing over our heads from sub-machine guns, others were standing up in the car and on the running boards; all shouting and waving pistols. Four men jumped off almost before their car had stopped and rushed towards us shouting: "Hands up!"
I don't remember actually getting out of the car, but by the time the men reached us, I was certainly standing next to Stevens, on his left. I heard him say: "Our number is up, Best." The last words we were to exchange for over five years. Then we were seized. Two men pointed their guns at our heads, the other two quickly handcuffed us.
I heard shots behind me on my right. I looked round and saw Klop. He must have crept out behind us under cover of the car
door which had been left open. He was running diagonally away from us towards the road; running sideways in big bounds,
firing at our captors as he ran. He looked graceful, with both arms outstretched - almost like a ballet dancer. I saw the
windscreen of the German car splinter into a star, and then the four men standing in front of us started shooting and after
a few more steps Klop just seemed to crumple and collapse into a dark heap of clothes on the grass.
"Now, march!" shouted our captors, and prodding us in the small of our backs with their guns, they hurried us, with cries of "Hup! Hup! Hup!" along the road towards the frontier. As we passed the front of the cafe I saw my poor Jan held by the arms by two men who were frog-marching him along. It seemed to me that his chin was reddened as from a blow. Then we were across the border. The black and white barrier closed behind us. We were in Nazi Germany.